City of Ottawa planner raises questions about French urban planner Jacques Gréber

More than 65 years after French urban planner Jacques Gréber drafted his famous 1950 blueprint to transform the cityscape of Canada’s capital, Ottawa author and City of Ottawa planner Alain Miguelez is raising questions about Gréber’s legacy.

At a Heritage Ottawa lecture that was to be held Dec. 13 at Dominion-Chalmers United Church in Centretown, Miguelez was scheduled to discuss issues raised by his recent book, Transforming Ottawa, a re-examination of Gréber’s influence on the national capital.

The lecture was to take place after press time, but Miguelez said in advance that Gréber was responsible for many improvements in the urban environment but also some problems the city is currently trying to fix.

At first, it seemed unlikely that Gréber, a Paris architect born in 1882, would become the most influential planner of Canada’s capital.

But at a 1937 cultural exhibition in Paris, Gréber met then-prime minister Mackenzie King. The two men became friends, and Gréber came to Ottawa in 1938 to help design Confederation Square, the public space at the north end of Elgin Street where the National War Memorial was unveiled in 1939.

Gréber came back after the Second World war and started working on an ambitious and wide-ranging city plan. It was adopted shortly after King’s death in 1950. Gréber’s plan would continue to be the prime force shaping the nation’s capital for the next 30 years.

Miguelez’s book, subtitled Canada’s Capital in the eyes of Jacques Gréber, is based on the pictures Gréber took for his own documentation when he visited Ottawa for the first time.

Heritage Ottawa invited Miguelez to lecture about his 2015 publication.

 “It coincided quite well when we are on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday,” said Leslie Maitland, past president of Heritage Ottawa. “It seemed like a opportune time to discuss his legacy.”

Miguelez highlights the very best but also the worst of the Gréber plan.

For the very best, he said, the National Arts Centre and the national museums are the direct result of Gréber’s influence.

“Gréber said that there should be a national theatre, museums and cultural institutions in Ottawa, and it is true that it was missing,” Miguelez said.

Gréber also recommended the removal of railways, as there was at the time 15 tracks crossing through the core of the city. Factories were also relocated farther from the city centre.

“In his opinion, the smoke of the factories was too close to the Parliament, and that was not worthy of a capital,”, Miguelez said. 

But with this deindustrialization came the destruction of workers’ communities. LeBreton Flats, for instance, remained empty for 50 years. “There were churches, houses, schools. Nothing remained,” Miguelez said. “We are endeavouring to rebuild the area (today). But, once you’ve removed an arm, it’s difficult to grow it back.”

The Greenbelt is also one of Gréber’s ideas. But it was not Ottawa’s fate to remain small, with all housing and commercial development contained within the ring of farmland and forest that today divides the inner urban Ottawa from its suburban communities, including Kanata and Orleans.

Development simply continued well beyond the Greenbelt.

“When you enter Ottawa, you don’t have the impression you’re entering into a great metropole,” Miguelez said.

Gréber also believed that each area should have a function, and that that residential neighborhoods should be separated from commercial areas. This loss of urban mixing now means the majority of Ottawa residents are dependent on their cars to move between home and work every day.

Miguelez said that there is more awareness in the last 20 years about the negative impacts of the Gréber plan.

“Officially, the city is turning the situation around,” he said. “But in the details of the implementation, we are still mired in unchanged practices.”

Ottawa is now investing in light-rail transit lines to make people less reliant on cars. Some streets have been narrowed to reduce traffic.

The city has been taking measures to increase the density of population in some areas.

Miguelez said he wanted his book to be a neutral diagnostic of Gréber’s legacy, to help Ottawa improve — “To know how to move forward, you need to know where you come from,” he said.